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The World Will Be Saved by Beauty

An impromptu poem, a cute Corgi, and a call for tiny acts of creativity

Can creativity, caring, dignity, and humbleness help our organizations and our communities get—and stay—healthy? It may sound naïve, but I believe that if we do them well, we can make Dostoevsky’s 19th century declaration into a reality: “The world will be saved by beauty.”

We’ve all heard of “death by a thousand cuts.” I want to go the other direction. Life with a thousand lights of creativity. It’s my belief that the illumination from small creative actions can help us get through the coming months—which, we know, are not going to be easy. Like the lighters held up in a dark stadium (remember concerts?!) during a great show, a whole lot of small lights can come together to make something special happen. Each on its own might seem insignificant. But if one doesn’t happen, the odds of the others happening decrease. Yes, we can wait for others to get going. Or we can get to work. Because as Maria Shriver says: “You are the leader you’ve been looking for.”

2020 hasn’t been good for much, but it’s showing all of us just how much tension we can work our way through. I wrote a lot about worrying—why it’s not helpful and how to get out of it—back a few months ago. The other day, I came upon this leadership lesson from creative business thinker Jim Collins. It’s what he’s taught himself to do when worry and anxiety start to overtake his day:

…one of the best things to do is to throw myself into creative preparation for something that’s coming up and to go into the preparation bubble. And the reason for that is simple. There’s nothing to compare to at all. There’s nothing to be judgmental of. They haven’t happened yet, right. They’re all in the future. And all your energy goes from looking backward or looking to the side or any of that and all of that just all of a sudden becomes this energy. You roll out of bed, go right to the desk and then immediately pop up and say, “What have I got coming up I need to prepare for?”

Collins’ regimen could work for any of us. When stress starts to drag us down, take a deep breath and move, headlong, wholeheartedly into creative pursuits. We don’t need to wait til the tension gets too high for us to take—we can start today. Because when creativity is happening, cool things will almost always emerge. I wrote a whole lot about the subject in Secret #39, in Part 3—“Creating Creativity”—it’s got 20 different techniques to help make your work culture (or your life) a more creative place to reside. Creativity won’t, I know, kill Coronavirus, or bring an end to racism. But it is the creative work of scientists whose names we don’t yet know who have made the vaccine research successful. And the caring creative commitment of leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi to find new approaches to old problems that have helped us move, more slowly than we want, towards more equitable and inclusive outcomes.

In our day-to-day lives, I believe, it’s small acts of creative kindness and connection that bring vitality and beauty with which we can fend off the tension of the world. The key is to push the creative insights and observations out into the world without waiting for the perfect opportunity or award-winning ad campaign. We all have it in us! To prove the point, I wrote a poem. It’s silly, but I’m gonna stick it in here anyways, because half of what I’ve learned about creativity over the years is that the weird wacky “that’ll never work” sort of thoughts we hide in our heads—ideas that seem like they might lead to embarrassment—are often the fun, creative things we can benefit from going after. Making oneself vulnerable to caring folks (like you) is the only way forward through the fear and anxiety that haunts me, and every human being I’ve ever talked to. In the spirit of which, I try to regularly remind myself of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Every artist was first an amateur.”

This little poem, in the spirit of the quick creative action in which I wrote it, is serving, right now at least, as my new recipe to encourage creativity. All of which, I realize, is a good way to take Jim Collins’ idea and turn it into a practical, down-to-earth, construct with which to generate a collective tidal wave of creative wonder. Simple and silly, and yet, surprisingly pretty practical, here it is:

Pay attention
Look for connection
Put it on a plate.

As I wrote in the Secret #39, “Many an innovation at Zingerman’s has started as someone’s only semi-serious, often sarcastic, throwaway thought.” And one of the many things I learned from studying creativity is that, no doubt about it, we can all do it. Edgar Schein, who shined the light so meaningfully on humility for me, says, “I think there is an artist in every one of us, but we don’t honor the creative part of ourselves enough.” If there was ever a time to bring that creative component to the fore, this period of the pandemic is it.

To be clear, this kind of creativity isn’t hard or onerous. What I’m talking about here is easy. Light. Small. Almost insignificant. Tiny, caring kind acts of creativity. There are tiny houses, right? And Cornman Farms creatively came up with Tiny Weddings (which are working wonderfully). So why not tiny acts of creativity? Things that might take under a minute, and generally cost next to nothing. The beauty of beauty, after all, is that anyone can do it. Anywhere, anytime.

Which brings me back to something John F. Kennedy said:

… art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color. What freedom alone can bring is the liberation of the human mind and a spirit which finds its greatest flowering in the free society. I see of little more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.

Where is that “place”? It’s wherever we’re sitting or standing right this minute. And the “future” JFK referenced has already arrived. As Debbie Millman wrote in her super marvelous book, Look Both Ways, “Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

So here you go. An impromptu highly imperfect poem turned quickly into a four-step recipe to help spark a thousand tiny acts of creativity:

1. Pay attention

When we teach the ZingTrain sessions on self-management, we start with a quick mindfulness exercise—we have folks take three minutes and write down everything, as fast as they can, that they can notice. All five senses count. At first nearly everyone puts down what they’d already seen. That takes about 30 seconds. Somewhere around that point people kind of pause… and then they get going with a new focus. They begin to notice the nuance, observe things that were there all along, but that they hadn’t paid attention to at all. Try it right now if you’re game. Even two minutes will tell you a lot.

The world, our world, it turns out, is filled with things we’ve never thought about, understood or acknowledged. Or paid even an iota of attention to. Some are, for sure, painful. But many more are truly marvelous. The more we pay attention to them, the more interesting they get. Ultimately, paying attention is a critical skill of leadership—without good information it’s impossible to make good decisions. If we drill down deep, mindfully, in a state of humbleness, with awe and appreciation, and pay attention to almost any subject, we will always find amazing things. Creative energy awaits. Study ladybugs, latkes, or the history of forestry in Finland… the more particular you get and the deeper you go, the more interesting the insights. Worry slowly turns to wonder. Fear fades into fascination. Boredom shifts to beauty.

2. Look for connection

The next step is to connect what we’ve uncovered with something else we wouldn’t have thought to connect it with. There are connections, I’ve come to realize, waiting to be made all around us. Connecting is a critical life, and business, skill. It isn’t about figuring out the right answer. It’s coming up with an answer, often one that no one else has ever come up with. Moving in different worlds, engaging diversity, can contribute a lot to the connecting. Reading multiple books at the same time has helped me enormously. Learning about different skill sets. Taking classes in things we know nothing about. Picking up the phone and calling people in different places with different problems and different perspectives.

To help practice the skill of connecting, I put this on my list of art exercises:

Creative Connections: Pick anything—a coffee cup, a bagel, a sweater; Make a list of five things that are important, matter about it. Pick a second thing and do it again. Now explore the connections between the two lists. How does the bagel connect to the sweater?

What creative connections might you make within your workplace?

Try this. Pick a book. If you don’t have a book, grab an article or maybe a magazine. Open it somewhere but not the beginning. See what you find. To test myself I took one out of a stack of six books I’d bought a while ago but had forgotten about. On page 15, one John Hickey has an essay in which he declared thirty years ago: “The issue of the nineties will be beauty.” I flipped ahead to the last paragraph of his piece where Hickey says, “Beauty… remains a potent instrument for change in this civilization.” He was probably correct when he wrote the essay. And he’s still right today.

When we connect the dots, cool things emerge. Now that I’m thinking of it, I’ve started imagining a series of photos of one of our Corgis, Sprout, sleeping. Sprout can be very emotional when she’s up and about (brooms, UPS drivers, squirrels, and deer are anxiety provoking). But when she sleeps, she’s as peaceful a sight as one will see. The calm look in her face, those cute little paws. She’s quite creative in her poses as she sleeps. The photos take about ten seconds. It’s a way to turn the mundane into the marvelous. And just taking a minute to appreciate her sleeping beauty calms my energy, makes me smile, and pretty surely improves the quality of the rest of my day.

3. Concentrate

This is the work of putting things together to turn them into something we can make come alive. The trick, ironically, is often to concentrate on something OTHER than the issue at hand. As Jonah Lehrer writes, “One of the surprising lessons of this research [on creativity] is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.” This is why we have so many good insights while we’re in the shower or walking the dog or… It’s why when I write I’m constantly flicking from one document to the next—ideas pop into my head that have nothing to do with what I’m working on, but I don’t want to lose them.

John Kay’s book, Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly is all about this. He says:

Strange as it may seem… If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So, the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.

This is exactly how I thought up the Donut Sundae one day while I was out running. It’s what happened for me when I was studying anarchism to avoid embarrassing myself in front of the Jewish Studies Department a dozen years ago, and realized how similar so much of anarchist thinking was with progressive business practices. (See Secret #43.5 for more on this). It’s also what happened when I was getting ready to teach the second half of a ZingTrain seminar day and noticed the nearly empty pans of macaroni & cheese and fried chicken—which was mostly just crumbs from the crust leftover—and, the next Friday we were serving Fried Chicken Mac and Cheese. These are simple, almost as silly as my four-line poem, thoughts that, in the right place and at the right time, can turn into—as all three of these have—projects or products that make a big difference. The raw material was readily available to all. It’s the act of connection and consummate action that turns them into something meaningful.

4. Put it on a plate

I’m in the food business so “plate” seems appropriate, but you can switch to “place” if that feels better. This step is about somehow getting the idea out of our heads into a place where other people can use it. Every single human you’ve ever met and ever will meet has an almost infinite number of interesting ideas. The question is, can they, will they, put it in on a plate. Look at the story of the Christmas Cookie Club last week. What pretty much bombed when we tried it with Borders turned into beauty and good business when it evolved over the years into the wonder that is now Fancy Schmancy Cookies.

Taking the seemingly strange new thoughts you’ve had and being willing to push them out into the world is where we take the tiny acts of creativity and turn them into real life difference makers. You can call them “experiments,” you can call them strange ideas. This is the start of the printing press and nearly every other big innovation you ever heard of or used. They began as someone’s crazy, easily dismissed back of an envelope doodle. While maybe only a few ideas, insights or observations will turn into something terrific, this fourth step is a critical component of closing the creative loop. To bring a crazy idea into an effective implementation is, in itself, another creative act. Because as 19th century English anarchist Edward Carpenter wrote, “Life is an art, and a very fine art.”

It’s often the small shifts that can turn tiny acts of creativity into big long-term results. Here’s a short bit I wrote in Secret #39:

When it comes to creative work… Stas’ Kazmierski always taught us to “adapt, not adopt.” In other words, adjust what you learn to your own ecosystem and environment. I’ve come to look at it in the same way as I do the directions on the lids of pill bottles, the ones that say, “To open, push down and turn.” In other words, to find the item in the first place, we need to do a bit of digging (the “push down”), but to make it our own we want to give it just a bit of a twist to make it special and unique to us (the “turn”). And when we do, we effectively unlock the creative “cures” that we’re after.

I wrote that long before any of us had heard of Coronavirus. But best I can tell from reading (and I don’t know much, I never made it to med school) the vaccine work for Covid is not completely “new.” Rather, it’s literally decades of work that have been shifted slightly from earlier applications to come out with something critical for the health care world.

When we do this work regularly we can create a culture where small creative acts—caring, kind, collaborative—can be part of the day to day life of the organization. If you want another take on all this, in The Healing Organization, Raj Sisodia and Michael Gelb, offer that, “Creativity is the art of generating new ideas that have subjective value, and innovation is the process of translating those ideas into… products or services that meet human needs in a sustainable profitable way. Healing leaders are solution-oriented, creative-thinkers who inspire and guide others to find creative solutions, then nurturing a culture that supports innovation.”

Jim Collins commits himself to doing at least three hours of creative work every single day. It adds up to over 1000 hours a year. He’s been holding to that regimen for decades now. I’m going to lower the bar for the rest of us. Start a list. I’m going to. Write down three (or more) tiny creative acts or ideas every day. By the end of the year we will have 1000 tiny points of creative light with which to help lead our collective way to the future. It makes a difference. The little lights add up to brighten the world. As anarchist Marcus Graham wrote half a century or so ago: “In art [we] find the embodiment of [our] dream and hopes: Freedom and justice, Beauty and Happiness for all mankind.”
P.S. This regimen might help you stay young too. Peter Drucker, the great business thinker, wrote 25 books between the time he turned 65 and his death at the age of 95. The Catalan cellist, Pau Casals, who lived to be 97, said, “If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”

P.P.S. There’s a bunch of other helpful stuff in Secret 39: solitude, the value of taking notes, the theory of Relavantivity, problem swaps, hunching season, and more, I now remember, about why it’s not a good use of energy to worry. Pair #39 up with the pamphlet “The Art of Business,” and you’ve got a pretty creative gift.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!